We Discover the Secret to Happiness
In the years to come, we overcome our ethical squeamishness about mind-manipulation and the intrusiveness of having electrodes implanted in the brain.
It becomes the rage, in fact, to have an electrode implanted in the brain.
Of course, only the rich and bourgeois could afford it in the beginning, but the biomedical companies that developed the technology worked hard to make it more cost-effective and affordable. Now that they’ve succeeded everyone has to have one.
At about this time, a famous neurosurgeon publishes findings which claim that the secret to happiness lies in the body. A body that is happy tells the brain it is happy. The brain is not the boss of the body when it comes to happiness. Another famous neurosurgeon publicly wonders whether this isn’t a chicken-and-egg issue, but everyone ignores him because it is well-known that he is overly fond of fried chicken and grits.
Shortly after that, emotion-manipulation becomes a household fad—it’s the new ‘green’. People demarcate that area where the electrode made its entrance with fine tattoos or just a shaved clearing. Others dye the hair growing from that spot in infinitesimal eco-shades of green. These new shades make us collectively feel like Adam and Eve—the first humans on a new Pangea.
The old shades—hunter, myrtle, shamrock—become passé. Now look at these: lucretide, lichenhippo, sugarcanedragon, octopuke. People name their children shades of green. Chloroteal became the favorite baby girl’s name for last year and Asparaphyll the favorite baby boy’s name.
Lines outside medical facilities that perform electrode-implanting procedures snake around the block. There is a sharp rise in the number of elementary school kids who want to become neurosurgeons when they grow up. Many others want to be tattooists. Mood congruity becomes a buzzword (moodcon for short).
If you have an implanted electrode, all you need in order to feel happy is to walk into a Starbucks-like service center and plug into an electrical signal. The signal stimulates your brain to order up a posture of happiness, so that shoulders that are sagging suddenly lift and straighten. Facial muscles create smiles. You are secure in the knowledge that the electrical signal triggers a cocktail of neurotransmitter release. The heartbeat accelerates. The physiology of happiness sends a message to the limbic system where your emotions reside.
The technology hits a temporary snag when everyone suddenly notices that the electrode doesn’t seem to differentiate between fake smiles and genuine smiles. Genuine smiles involve eye-crinkling muscles but fake smiles don’t. Who knew? (Actually we did, but the inventor forgot to program eye-crinkling muscles stimulation code into the computer emitting the electronic impulses.) But once that’s ironed out, the system works perfectly and it’s fabulous. Plugging up to mood-congruity is like a good thought-soak in the happy-bath. When you feel happy, you have more happy thoughts and from happy thoughts an avalanche of connections build in your neural circuitry. The happiness trip snowballs and genuine euphoria breaks out.
FMRI scans are now as cheap as pinto beans. People ask for scans of what their brains look like in euphoric states. When the whole brain is lit up it looks like a brilliant night-sky with an exuberant display of fireworks—so beautiful that some people frame their blown-up fMRI scans as art and hang them on their walls.
Massive outputs of happy thoughts lead to massive idea-generation. We can’t analyze the changes fast enough to suit the times; the everyday lexicon has changed and people throw around brain science—cingulate gyrus, nucleus accumbens, corpus collosum—the way they discuss movies or good restaurants.
Everyone has an opinion. “That your brain on oxytocin? My word, it looks like a Van Gogh.”
Thus begins a new renaissance for humankind as our happy optimism helps us discover cures for brain-related diseases that defeated us up till now—Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, epilepsy—and due to the easy availability of mood-enhancers their popularity begin to surpass that of drugs like cocaine and heroin. Plugging up to electrical signals is cheaper without the addictive side-effects.
Art, prose, music proliferate like French Impressionism-quadrupled or Woodstock to the power of three. Science doesn’t fare badly either and researchers claim that they are closer than ever to finding a Theory of Everything. They’ve simulated the Big Bang at least ten times. The earth’s sustainable resources are being carefully husbanded. Now with genetic regeneration, salmon and tuna are more plentiful than ever. Endangered is an oxymoronic word. They are about to find a way to close the hole in the ozone layer. And since this technology is accessible world-wide, people are fighting less. Palestinian and Israeli children play Pat-A-Cake together; their politicians gesture at each other like bonobos and occasionally hug and drink tea together.
Obviously, reduced warfare is detrimental to the defense businesses and so some people are not as happy as others. But lo, people taking electrical jabs find themselves less anxious about how many zeroes are in the bank. Thus, the overall level of discontent is diluted. Suicides go underground.
Language too has changed; people have emotions about their emotions. “Oh, I’m just rapturous that I’m so happy.”
But there’s a subgroup of people who is continually depressed. At first, they chart more trips to the electronic plug-ins than usual, zap themselves to produce more endorphins, and generally walk about with heavy jowls or a hang-dog face. The happier some people are, the sadder they seem; they are happiest when they are sad. Being sad makes them feel good, a kind of reward circuitry wired into their brains. When they feel sad, their levels of dopamine rise.
But now, one of them has killed himself. He stuck his head in an oven. Before sticking his head in an oven, he had scrawled angry black words across his kitchen wall with a Sharpie, “Fuck happy!” This causes a furor—the ! was meant to be a ?, and ‘fuckhappy’ becomes a new buzzword for people who are addicted to feeling sad to feel happy. Gradually, the sum total of people addicted to feeling sad approaches the sum total of people feeling happy. In this way, as often happens with economic markets or chemical compounds or eco-systems, a new equilibrium is struck.
This new plateau immures us within the era in which we live. We can invent anything, even happiness. And that, surely, must be a kind of happiness.
Elaine Chiew lives in London and her stories have appeared in Metazen, killauthor, Pedestal, Hobart, Night Train, African Writing Online, Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books), Alimentum and others. She won the Bridport Short Story Competition (2008) and was recently shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize (2012).